The flicks are there as are the twists and turns that he does better than most but there is much more to Chanathip Songkrasin’s game that the crowd-pleasing tricks.
The Thai international is starting to have an influence for his new team in Japan. Whatever happens in the future with Consadole Sapporo, the playmaker already has achieved something that no ASEAN player has in recent times.
He has become a success.
It is too early in some ways to judge the player after just a few weeks but the minimum standard for success is becoming a valued starting member which is something that has eluded his regional counterparts of late. And he has done just that. There is more work to be done but Chanathip has already met his first target.
There is no doubt that the J.League is looking for players from Southeast Asia for commercial profits. The organisation has been active in the region for some time. It has signed Memorandums of Understanding and/or agreements with many ASEAN national associations. There have been various moves to broadcast J-League games and clubs from Japan have also played their part: arranging friendlies, partnership and exchanges.
The J.League is looking for new markets to expand in and wants to become the representative Asian league, one that all others on the continent look to. While the league may not have the glamour or star power of big European counterparts, it is able to treat Southeast Asian leagues on a more equal footing and has plenty to teach about how to build a successful competition.
— 北海道コンサドーレ札幌《公式》 (@consaofficial) July 22, 2017
What Japan has lacked is a reason for fans in the region to watch games. The obvious method is to take the best players to go and play in the J.league. After all, when Japanese players go to the big European leagues there is plenty of interest -not much sells as well as patriotism.
At the moment, fans in ASEAN know that their stars are not quite ready for England, Spain or Germany but Japan is a different matter.
Try and take Chanathip to England, for example, and the general reaction would be that he is too small. It would be hard for him to ever get past such an attitude. Yet this is less of an issue in Japan. The style of play is technical and at least Japan has some idea of what Thai and Southeast Asian football in general is all about.
But until now the regional stars who have gone to the Land of the Rising Sun in recent years has struggled to make any impact. There was Le Cong Vinh. The Vietnamese goalscoring legend went to the same team as Chanathip but back in 2013, the northerners were in the second tier. The striker did just about OK with two goals in nine games but was soon heading home.
Then there was Indonesian megastar Irfan Bachdim. The exciting Dutch-born player may have been on the books of Ajax as a youngster but his short spells at Ventforet Kofu and Sapporo were nothing to write to Amsterdam or Jakarta about. Chan Vathanka of Cambodia is just getting started in J3 and Wan Zack Haikal didn’t do too much for FC Ryukyu. Apart from a few ASEAN youngsters on loan, in the past few years, there hasn’t been much competition for Chanathip.
That is not his problem. It makes his job both easier and harder. It means that the bar has been set pretty low but also means that he has a tougher job to convince the locals that he is the real deal. Fortunately, he has the talent to do just that.
Consadole Sapporo are a team that usually struggle when they are in the top flight and this can make it difficult for a player coming from Southeast Asia. In a relegation fight, there is little time given to adapt. Players, no matter where they are from, have to contribute from the beginning. Every game is crucial.
That was the same on Saturday against Vegalta Sendai. This is a home game that Sapporo had to win. The visitors are sitting in lower mid-table but had moved away from the relegation zone with seven points from the previous three games.
Chanathip was active, finding space in the final third and pulling defenders out of position and making them uncomfortable with his ability on the ball. His decision-making did not always match the skills in his feet but that will come with more time in Japan. There is less time on the ball in the J-League than in Thailand, the defenders are generally better and the players are fitter. This is precisely why the player has gone there – to improve.
And the improvement will come and when it does, he will not just be a star in Thailand but in Japan too. For now, he will have to settle for being the first successful ASEAN player in the J-League for years.